France, Private Collection.
“Successful or not successful, I don’t have to answer to anyone and I do not have to ask you ‘Is it good?’ It doesn’t concern you. I mean that I have to do it and whether it is accepted or not makes no difference to me. But what I do, I do consciously but in such a way that I can not deny it.” An independent spirit from all points of view, Eekman followed a solitary path in 20th century art which made him one of the “accursed painters,” but also conserved the freedom which made his work great.
Nicolas Mathieu Eekman was born in Brussels in 1889 in the very room where Victor Hugo wrote part of Les Misérables while in exile. His parents were Dutch, and the artist spent his whole life as a Fleming attached to his roots. After studies in Architecture, Drawing, and Painting in Brussels, Eekman took refuge in Holland at the beginning of World War I. He was welcomed by a pastor friend who lived in Van Gogh’s former priory and met the master’s circle and models, events which he experienced as tremendously invigorating: his work had its roots in the simple peasant life he led there for four years. Already in 1915, an initial exhibition in The Hague revealed him to the eyes of the public and to museums who didn’t hesitate to acquire his works.
Eekman’s career continued in Montparnasse where he settled in 1921. He became friends with Jean Lurçat, Marcoussis, Max Jacob, and even Mondrian, next to whom he exhibited at the Jeanne Bucher Gallery in 1928. Interested in Cubism, Eekman remained fiercely hostile to abstraction and followed his own personal path outside of dominant trends. Although he considered Bosch, Breughel and even James Ensor as his masters, Eekman did not give in to pastiche and he anchored himself in tradition in order to affirm his contemporary uniqueness. When he explored fantastic avenues, tinted with dreams, it was always to return to daily reality and its heart: mankind. His work is peopled by the universe of the humble – workers, peasants, fishermen, street comedians and saltimbanques – in a poetic verity which is sometimes truculent, sometimes sad, but always profoundly humane.
Here, Nicolas Eekman has represented a seated saltimbanque holding his sleeping son on his lap. The artist, who was a matchless engraver, demonstrates the quality of his drawing on this sheet. Concise and incisive, without any superfluous lines, he depicts the father’s tired features and the child’s limp body, with a naked verity which is emphasized by the lack of setting and the tightly framed composition. The hands reveal a moving tenderness in counterpoint to the faces. That of the child sucking his thumb has kept the innocence of the age embodied by the colored ball. That of the saltimbanque, striking in its expressiveness, combines the modesty of the profile which is turned away with the poignant sadness of a gaze without illusions. Elsewhere a simple wash, the watercolor here draws a veritable portrait in colored nuances.
If Eeckman was constantly renewing himself, recurrent motifs nonetheless traverse his art. The saltimbanque’s face with its acute profile, recalls that of the man in The Bird and the Pear (1970, oil on panel, 46 x 38 cm.), as well as that of the comedian in the Mascarade (2nd version) (1969, oil on canvas, 65 x 81 cm.). The hat planted with feathers is that of Importance (1941, pen, 49 x 32 cm.) as touching in our saltimbanque as it is ludicrous in Importance. As for this serious introversion, the product of an unembellished reality, one can find, for example in the Cabinetmaker (1913, pencil, 53 x 43 cm. 1913), another illustration of one of the artist’s sayings: “I would like the man in front of my work to feel in harmony with another man.”
Emmanuel BREON, Jean-Louis M. MONOD, Claude ROY, Nicolas Eekman : peintre graveur. 1889-1973, Paris, Somogy, 2004.
Jean-Louis M. MONOD, Eekman, peintre, humaniste... et magicien, Geneva, Pierre Cailler, 1969.
Jean-Baptiste de LA FAILLE, Essai sur Eekman, Mons, éd. de Baix, 1961.
Robert BEAUZEMONT, Eekman peintre et graveur, Paris, 1948.